Friday 28 March 2008

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

I bought a second hand car last week from a garage on the so-called “voetstoots” agreement which they say means that you take the vehicle ‘as it is.’

A day later the car indicated that it needs coolant when in actual fact it did not have any water. The car overheated and I couldn’t use it for the whole weekend and had to take it to the garage on Monday morning and paid P1,500 for it to be fixed.

Please advice me on this ‘voetstoots’ thing because a lot of us will get conned by garages through this clause. Also please advise on whether can claim my money back from the garage

Well, firstly there is nothing in our laws specifically about “voetstoots” sales although most of us know what this means and it’s a common term used in car sales. As you say it means you buy something on an “as is” or “as it stands” basis. The idea is that you buy something cheaply but in return you take all the risk regarding it’s condition. The seller is trying to shed all responsibility for the condition of the item he’s selling.

The real problem you face is whether you really understood what that meant when you bought this car. Did you honestly understand that you were buying it on that basis? If you can prove that you didn’t understand what that term meant you could claim the seller had broken Section 17 (1) (g) of the Consumer Protection Regulations which deals with causing confusion with language. However it would be VERY difficult to prove. Even though it’s an Afrikaans word most of us understand what it means.

Also if you could show that they didn’t mention it clearly you could claim they deceived you and broke Section 17 (1) (e) which says a seller can’t avoid the basic “implied warranty of merchantability and fitness for use” unless they make it perfectly clear to you before you sign anything.

Realistically we suspect that you stand little chance of getting your money back. If your purchase agreement says “voetstoots” you are going to find it hard to get anything back.

The lesson is simple. When you buy a second-hand car take a friendly mechanic with you and trust their judgment!

Thank you

This is the very last…

I know that certain organisations are getting excited already. Those that don’t like the things we say, that get upset when we expose their scandalous interest rates or contractual terms, those that threaten us when we demonstrate how they deceive and confuse their customers and those that think consumers shouldn’t know how to protect themselves.

There are stores that sell things on credit that would probably like us to go away. They would dearly like us to stop writing in Mmegi and to the various Ministers in Government regarding the illegal conduct of these stores when they fail to disclose the full credit price of the items they sell.

There are big stores that probably would like us to stop telling consumers about the ways they try and evade their legal responsibilities. Like the case we heard of from a consumer who had just bought a new “Kreepy Krauly” cleaning device for their swimming pool. On the outside of the box it said that the device had “a fantastic 5-year limited warranty”. Well, excellent you might think and yes I’d probably agree with you. However, when you opened the sealed box and found the warranty card inside things became a little different. The card outlined a few reasonable exclusions from the warranty. It’s not covered if you mistreat the device which is reasonable. The curious part was the last clause that said that the warranty “is given in place of all warranties, guaranteed, express or implied, of mechantability, fitness for particular purpose”. In other words the Consumer Protection Regulations don’t apply. In particular the sections that talk about it being “fit for the purpose”. The Regulations DO allow a supplier to waive those obligations but so long as “the waiver is clearly stated and the consumer has specifically consented to it”. Well, how can you consent to this when you have to open the sealed box to read it, something you can only do AFTER you have purchased it, have got it home and are plugging it in? Distinctly dodgy if you ask me.

So yes, there are stores that would probably we shut up and went away.

Well, tough, we’re not going anywhere.

What I was going to write is that this is the very last Consumer Watchdog column that will be published during the current presidency. Next week we’ll have a different president and I really can’t allow this occasion to go past without note.

There are various reasons why I think it’s worth recognising the change. One is that the leadership of a country is just one facet of that country. The leader might retire but the nation carries on. It’s ironic that there is more continuity in a democracy than in a dictatorship. When dictators like Tito, Amin or Castro finally go there is disruption, anarchy and distress. When a democratically elected leader moves on virtually nothing happens. The national wheels just keep turning. It’s exactly the same in business. Yes, a corporate leader can put his or her fingerprint on a company but he or she is just another employee doing their best to satisfy the customers and through them the shareholders.

However the most important point for me is a personal one. Every year we hold a Consumer Watchdog Birthday Party that has been very generously sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank. Take note – they don’t sponsor Consumer Watchdog, they just sponsor the party. We don’t take sponsorship for anything we do for consumers.

We hold the party for one reason only. To celebrate everyone that we have celebrated in this column. The people we list every week have been nominated by our readers as people who deserve public recognition for the astounding service they deliver. They aren’t celebrated by their company, by themselves or by their mum. They are celebrated by you and me, ordinary consumers.

Just so it’s perfectly clear let me stress that they get celebrated and invited entirely for free. Not one of them pays a single thebe to be there and neither do their employers. It’s a genuine celebration, not a money-raising event.

They get invited to the party along with the most senior person in their company, to be celebrated in public, in front of the press and by the nation itself.

That’s the connection with the President. He has attended both of the parties we’ve held so far. Each time he has taken time from his astonishingly busy schedule to come along and help us celebrate our service stars. He has come as our Head of State so that the State itself can recognise our customer service heroes.

We are deeply grateful for this. Hopefully being celebrated by Consumer Watchdog is a good thing. Hopefully having your name published in Mmegi is an uplifting experience. But what can be better than having your President stand in front of you and say you are a tribute to the country?

If you want to see some evidence of the occasions visit our web site. There are pictures and even a video clip of the coverage on BTV.

I hope he won’t mind us telling you about his arrival at last year’s party. He arrived as planned and was escorted to a sofa where he could relax and frankly he looked like he needed it. After a day full of visiting delegations, functions and paperwork he was obviously very tired. However as soon as he was invited to say a few words to the service stars he summoned up some energy, shot up to the stage and, without any preparation gave us all an uplifting speech.

I know politicians are masters of communication but his words really showed that as a leader and as the nation’s representative he understood how important customer service is to our country’s future. He understands that our people are far more valuable to us than diamonds.

So that’s why we are so grateful to him.

Mr President, we thank you. We thank you for your support, for your presence and for your obvious understanding of the role service plays in our future as a nation.

Enjoy your retirement, you’ve certainly deserved a break. Don’t forget that if you ever get bad service we’ll be there to help!

This week’s stars!

  • Leo Mokgware from BTC for sorting out a problem promptly.
  • Tebogo at BTC call centre for outstanding follow-up.
  • Ratsela Segwati from First National Bank for excellent recovery from a problem.

Friday 21 March 2008

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

My girlfriend and I recently bought a second hand car from a dealer in Mogoditshane for P23,000. We paid a deposit and the next day we went with a bank guaranteed cheque for the balance. However as we drove it back home from the dealer it broke down. We phoned the dealer and he said we should get the car towed back to him. We phoned the bank and cancelled the cheque before it could be cashed so we only lost the deposit and we had to pay for towing the car.

Do you think we can get the deposit and towing charge back from the dealer?

This is really unacceptable. Everyone understands that when you buy something second-hand it’s not going to be perfect. In particular a car worth P23,000 is going to be old and will have developed a bit of wear and tear, everyone expects that. However a second car that can’t even make it home from the dealer is a bit too much to swallow.

Many dealers will state when they sell you a second-hand car that you are buying it “voetstoots” which means “as is”. The idea is that you are buying something just as you see it and that no guarantees are being made about how merchantable the thing is. However I don’t believe that this exempts a dealer from all responsibilities. If you could prove that he knew that the car had known defects you might have an opportunity to sue him for compensation but that would probably cost you money and would take ages. When the new Small Claims Court the government is introducing is working it could be useful but that’s not here yet.

In the meantime congratulations for thinking quickly and cancelling the cheque. At least you got most of the money back.

Probably the best you can do is to ask them whether they want a team from The Voice coming over to interview them with a photographer. Do they want to make front-page news?

Or would they rather just pay you back your deposit?

Oh and don’t forget to tell everyone you know not to buy from that dealer.

A Consumer's Self Defence Class

How can we defend ourselves as consumers? Well, first, do we need to?

Yes, we do, sometimes. To be fair most companies do treat consumers with some respect. They are NOT trying to abuse us, they’re not trying to rip us off or try and they’re not trying to give us something less than value for money. These companies recognise that if they are honest and open about their products and services then we’ll recognise that and if we ever need a similar product we’ll go back to them again. We all have favourite shops, restaurants, mechanics and even banks who in the past have delivered what we want and, as importantly, in the way we want. They have earned our loyalty.

However there are exceptions. There are companies that prefer to operate by deception, distortions and misrepresentations. I really can’t understand why they do this because sooner or later people will hear about the way they do business and will avoid them. Unless they have a ready supply of new victims.

I was thinking about this recently after listening to a podcast from NESS, the New England Skeptical Society. They produce a fascinating weekly podcast called “The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe” that covers all sorts of deceptions, medical frauds, pseudoscience and New Age nonsense. If you have the technology then take a look at their web site at or search for them using iTunes. You’ll find it hugely informative.

Anyway, one of their presenters reported on a timeshare experience while on holiday in Hawaii and there followed a discussion of some of the techniques that are used in selling timeshares. My point isn’t specifically about timeshares although I confess I’m sceptical about the whole idea. The point is that some of the techniques they discussed can be used in selling almost anything. The lessons are universal.

Often timeshare companies will try to persuade you that timeshares are a good investment. They’ll try and tell you that they are a good place to put your money and you’ll see some sort of wonderful financial return. I don’t buy this one at all. I’ve never heard of a timeshare that turned out to be anything like a good investment. If they were really that good wouldn’t we see banks, investment companies and pension schemes buying into them?

They also tell you that the timeshare is something you can leave to your children. This really is silly. Remember that most timeshares aren’t cost-free. Most of them require you to pay an annual fee in return for a chance of holidays. Do you really want to leave your children a debt?

They’ll tell you that if you change your mind you can sell your timeshare or the points you’ve bought towards holidays to other people. But why would someone want to buy it from you if they can buy it from the company along with all the fancy gifts and special offers they seduce new purchasers with? Also, if you assume that the salespeople the company employ are paid on commission why would they encourage you to bypass their monthly bonus opportunity?

We’ve actually heard from loads of people who have tried for years to sell their timeshare points but all to no avail. Nobody seems to want to buy them second-hand.

Of course the really dangerous time is the initial sales pitch. That’s when you really must be on your guard. Remember that their sales people are almost certainly on commission and they may bend the truth to get your signature on a contract.

They’ll offer some sort of incentive in exchange for attending a sales function. You then find yourself stuck in a presentation lasting a couple of hours which is constructed to seduce you. You’ll find it difficult to leave without embarrassment. The pressure will be on and the delights of the scheme will appear undeniable. The presentation, like the sales functions of multi-level marketing companies like Amways will be high-energy, almost religious or cult-like in it’s intensity. An inspirational speaker and exciting presentation will be followed by the personal, very hard sell.

The salesperson will try to make you seem inconsistent. “You’re a smart, professional person, how could you turn down this obviously fantastic deal? How can you refuse an opportunity to save money on your holidays?” They’ll use centuries-old psychological tricks to persuade you that the only option is to sign up.

One of their favourite sales tricks is The Final Objection. They’ll say something like “What’s the one thing that’s stopping you taking this offer?” You’ll say something like “Price” or “Flexibility”. They will then focus on that single objection, come up with a very well-rehearsed, extremely persuasive answer and then you are left with no objections left. You after all told them the ONE thing that was stopping you from buying and they have demolished it. You either have to confess that you were lying and there are other objections or appear illogical, neither of which you are likely to do.

Some companies have even been known to fake sales in front of prospective customers. A pair of good-looking customers will pretend to be persuaded and will make a big show of signing up in front of you. In fact they’re nothing more than sale people acting as customers.

The most important thing is first of all not to be tempted to attend these seductive presentations. If by any chance you do end up there don’t take a pen with you. Get some sticking plaster and stick all your fingers together so you can’t possibly sign anything. Guys, take your wife with you. Girls, take your husband. If you’re single take your Mum or the grumpiest aunt you can find. Better still, stay at home and watch TV. It’s cheaper.

This week’s stars!

Solomon at Timber City. Our reader said that Solomon is “really passionate about what he does. He takes time explaining things and giving options. While he was serving me 3 other customers waited for him patiently, but there were other salesmen who were free. It goes to show how good this guy is”.

Friday 14 March 2008

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer's Voice

I have visited a particular salon on several occasions and have experienced appalling behaviour from the owner of the salon. The lady yells at her customers and workers for that matter.

She shouts at customers for trying on too many wigs, which are all very pricey. She is very impatient when you want to try on more than one wig and insists that the first one you tried on suits you therefore you should buy it. She gets aggressive and shouts at customers for being indecisive in terms of hair styles. If you talk to her about the issue she argues without listening and eventually drowns you out by talking to someone else leaving you unattended.

From the minute of walking in the salon you feel like a piece of meat waiting to be processed. The salon advertises itself as the one of the best and yet it seems the main focus of the salon is to serve as many clients as possible. They DO style the hair as desired but the experience is not enjoyable.

Should you send your mystery shoppers to try out the service and prove me wrong?

This is one of the easier questions we’ve had recently. Our advice is really very simple. Just don’t go there again. Tell all your friends about your experience and tell them to tell all of their friends. You’ll be surprised how quickly the word spreads. Companies that deliver services based on skills and the welcome they give to customers survive on good will alone. As soon as that good will evaporates so does their business. We’re not even slightly sympathetic if she goes out of business. She has no right to succeed, success has to be earned. She hasn’t earned it so why should she succeed?

Remember our advice to everyone. The two most powerful weapons a customer possesses are a left foot and a right foot. Use them!

P.S. Yes, we will send a mystery shopper over to see them!

P.P.S. If you think you could BE a mystery shopper give us a call!

The mystery of the pyramids

No, I’m not going to go on some mystical journey through superstition, pseudoscience and nonsense about how the pyramids can heal the sick, how they were built by aliens and how they are a channel to another dimension.

No, this is about pyramid selling schemes. Well, I have to be fair, reasonable and responsible, it’s about multi-level marketing as well. I can’t go around accusing companies of running pyramid selling schemes because in many countries of the world they are illegal. Far be it from me to accuse a company of operating illegally. I would never do that. Well, I would if they ignored the Control of Goods (Marking of Goods) Regulations and the requirement to disclose the FULL credit price of anything they sell on credit. Oh hang on, that’s almost all stores except Ellerines and Beares isn’t it?

Maybe they just don’t know about the Regulations? That way they could claim ignorance even though in law ignorance is no defence. But that doesn’t work either because we wrote to all the stores on 19th October last year telling them. And again on 26th October last year. And over and over and over again in Mmegi. You don’t think they are illiterate do you?

Anyway, back to the pyramids.

So what exactly is multi-level marketing? The essence of MLM is that instead of selling a product yourself you simply recruit a group of people to do the selling for you and you take a commission from every sale they make. So far, so normal. However what you do is to get these people to recruit more people to sell on their behalf and they can then take a commission from everyone they recruit. The really smart bit is that everyone has to pay a proportion of their profits back up the line to you. Each of them then has to recruit more people in order to make money and the more they recruit the more that comes back up to you. Some people call this “network marketing” but most often it’s just called multi-level marketing because of the many levels of people all marketing your product.

The obvious flaw is mathematical. In order for someone to make money they have to recruit several people below them. Imagine you start such a scheme and you recruit 10 people. Each of them then recruits a further 10 people. Each of those 10 people then recruits another 10 and so on. After only 5 generations of recruiting you will find the entire adult population of Gaborone is in the scheme. The next level has captured every grown-up in the country. Four more levels and every human being on the planet as well as their dogs are busy selling your product. It simply doesn’t add up. And all this assumes that you can persuade people to part with their money. The targets set are most than just unreasonable, they are insane.

Perhaps the biggest of the organisations behind this approach is Amway, a multi-billion dollar company from the USA. The products they market are almost all toiletries and household products and they’re here in Botswana as you read this. In fact they’ve been here for a few years and we all probably know someone who has tried to sell us some soap, or perhaps better, the opportunity to make money ourselves from selling soap.

Amway have a huge marketing momentum that tries to persuade potential buyers that with a little hard work a fortune can be made. In fact they are so persuasive that some commentators have remarked that they operate more like a cult religion that a business.

They operate freely in Botswana but not so in other countries. They are under pressure in the UK where the government is trying to close them down “in the public interest”. Evidence from the UK government findings show that around 70% of Amway victims, sorry that should read distributors, make nothing from them. In the USA Amway are obliged to label their products with a message warning that more than half of all Amway distributors never make a single cent from the business and that those that DO make, on average, a paltry US$65 per year.

Multi-level marketing of the Amway variety goes against the very essence of the free market economy. Note the emphasis on the word free. In such an economy two people come together and make a deal. One sells something, either a product, a service or simply his labour and the other buys it. Perhaps they negotiate over the price but at the end of the day they both agree on what they think is a fair price. However this is all based on honesty and openness. Pyramid schemes and multi-level marketing are both based on the absence of this openness and instead are based on false hope, distortions and exploitation.

Yes, it's true that some people DO make money from Amway and other similar schemes, but some people who jump off tall buildings survive, that doesn't mean it's a smart thing to do.

Amway have been known to be very defensive when they are the victim of criticism but as always we’re happy to defend what we say. It is, after all, based on facts. If you want to find further information on Amway as well as see the sources for the information in this article visit our web site and click on Consumer Watchdog.

If anyone from Amway feels like threatening to sue us then there’s a link there as well.

Finally, if you have dealt with Amway and have a story to share get in touch, we’d love to hear more.

This week’s stars!

  • Kenanao Makula from Barclays Bank who helped resolve a problem. Our reader said “I have never seen such a recovery. Mma Makula was helpful from the start and she kept calling until she got hold of me. It is people like Mma Makula who give us hope that excellent service and botho are not entirely dead and inspire those of us in the service industry to excel at our jobs. I hope you will be able to give a special mention to her in the paper.
We spoke to Barclays and one of their managers said they think Mma Makula is a “gem” and they told us that “we will ensure that she gets the recognition she deserves”.
  • Virginia at the beauty parlour at Mowana Safari Lodge in Kasane for putting the “tranquillity” into our national brand!

That, by the way, is the most Consumer Watchdog will ever say about our so-called national brand.

Well, perhaps.

Friday 7 March 2008

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer's Voice

I recently bought a Samsung cellphone from a store in Francistown. When I asked the store what warranty it came with they told me it lasted just one month. I didn’t think this was normal but I wanted the phone so bought it. When I got it home and unpacked it the paperwork said that it was covered by a warranty that lasted a whole year.

Which do you think was correct?

The first thing I would ask is whether you should have spent your money in a store who acts so strangely. All cellphones from reputable manufacturers like Samsung will come with a standard warranty that will last for something like a year. Some might even last longer. However if the store is saying they will only cover you for a month then you should ask some questions. Why are they trying to ignore the manufacturer’s warranty? Is it because they just don’t want to be bothered by you if it goes wrong? If so then they don’t deserve your money.

Is it that they are just trying to confuse you? That’s illegal. It’s illegal to confuse customers about their “legal rights, obligations, or remedies” when they buy something.

Alternatively is it perhaps because the phone is not all that it seems? We’ve heard that some unscrupulous cellphone stores import second-hand cellphones from other countries and then pass them off as new. That’s obviously illegal. Section 13 (1) (c) of the Consumer Protection Regulations says the store is in trouble if they say something is “new when in fact it has deteriorated, or it has been altered, reconditioned, used or is second hand”.

We wrote to Samsung about this but unfortunately we’ve not even had an acknowledgment from them. Don’t they care about their customers in Botswana?

If by any chance Samsung read this you know where to find us!

Can you measure it?

I was watching Sky News on TV recently and, as often happens with Sky in the mornings, they switch over to CBS for an update on the American news they seem to think we can't live without. See, it's not just BTV that do this. BTV used to switch over to the BBC but now broadcast a feed from the utterly ridiculous MSNBC. Quite why BTV think we want to see a series of TV advertisements for American loans, health insurance and pet care with occasional salacious bits of news in between I don't know. It's not having second-hand news I object to, it's the impression that BTV thinks just broadcasting anything it can get cheaply is good enough. It's not.

Anyway, back to Sky and CBS. I caught the end of an item on consumer confidence in the USA. It reported the news that Americans are now suffering as a result of rising oil prices and the resulting effect on the price of almost everything else. There were stories of very unfortunate Americans who were having great trouble paying their mortgages, were often surviving on nothing but credit cards and were generally very worried. Well, obviously anyone with feelings would be sympathetic. Of course it's horrible to see people whose dreams are being destroyed but there still was that little part of me that couldn't help thinking "Welcome to the real world".

For too long the USA has been over-protected by artificially low oil prices, tariffs that protect their own industries and protection from genuinely free trade. There was another story I saw on the BBC about the outrage in the US upon hearing that Boeing had lost a huge contract to supply planes to the US military and that, horrors, a European group had beaten them. Beaten them on price and quality. Politicians were demanding that only American companies should be selected to supply their military and that foreigners shouldn't be allowed a chance. And this from the champion of free enterprise? Isn't that slightly hypocritical?

On that subject I also couldn't help but laugh when I read an incredibly pompous letter in Mmegi from the "Deputy Chief of Mission" (haven't they heard of the definite article?) from the US Embassy. He started his letter about Africom by describing the USA as "the world's longest-standing democracy for 231 years". That is true of course. Well, it is if you ignore black people and women. He then compares their history of democracy with ours which, he reminds us, is only 41 years old. I hope he realises he's on slightly tricky ground here. He should perhaps be reminded that the Voting Rights Act that ensured black Americans were to be given genuine access to their democratic rights was only forced through by Lyndon Johnson in 1965. So yes, their democracy is undoubtedly older than ours.

By one year.

Also it's a little dangerous to claim, as he did, that history has recorded how the USA stood up to the "the evils of terrorist extremism". Yes, history has recorded it rather well. Who was it that armed the Taliban with missiles during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan? Who was it that trained Osama Bin Laden?

Of course, I'm not going to criticise the genuinely magnificent work that has been done with undoubtedly generous contributions by the US Government towards the fight against HIV/AIDS. It really IS enormously welcome and I will be the first to congratulate the US Government on the work they have done and funded. But the lesson is to learn a little humility and to try very hard not to be pompous, condescending and arrogant.

I confess that part of my reaction is surprise. I genuinely thought that I was the most pompous person in the country. Seems like I may have a rival.

Back to the issue.

One of the things that CBS reported was that consumer confidence in the USA was 68.4%. Well, I think that was the number, I don't really think what the number was matters very much. I really get cross (and yes, a bit pompous) when I see gross simplifications of what are complex issues. You really can't measure something complex in simple terms. Things like my height, weight and shoe size are easy to measure. But my intelligence, assertiveness and pomposity are much more complex things. It really is impossible to boil them all down to a single number. It's the same with things like consumer confidence, customer satisfaction and quality of service. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either naïve or trying to deceive you. Each of them is multi-facetted. When you and I go to a restaurant we have dozens of little experiences between arriving in the car park and leaving a couple of hours later. Some may be fantastic, others may be awful and trying to summarise the while experience by saying the restaurant scored 62% is just silly.

When you measure something complex you really have to measure as many of the components as possible. Imagine that you took your car for service and the mechanic said afterwards that 98% of the engine was perfect so he should expect 98% of the price. After it's only the fuel pump that hasn't been repaired so generally he scored rather well. Surely you and I would become very pompous and we would tell him where to put his invoice. So why is measurement of service any different?

As Oscar Wilde said, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. If you want to measure something you need to think VERY carefully before you do so. Remember that things like the length of democracy and my level of pomposity are not as easy to measure as you might think.

This week's stars!

  • Tshwarelo Gabatsholane who works at the Directorate of Public Service Management for "going the extra mile".
  • Mothibedi from Incredible Connection in Gaborone for his usual friendliness and helpfulness.
  • Kelly at FNB in Francistown for really friendly service, apparently "she really knows her customer service".